Building Tips

Building Tips (7)

I went to work in the family commercial construction company in the early 1980's and by the end of the decade had worked my way into the office as a project manager. Commercial construction is entirely different than residential construction. For one thing, everything is engineered - structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers all take a part in the design of commercial buildings. It wasn't long before I discovered the term "100 year storm".

Many structural designs and mechanical designs were based on the 100 year storm (I'm over simplifying for the purpose of this article).  Things like concrete foundation design and building structures were based on the worst earthquakes and windstorms of the last 100 years or maybe storm systems/drains were sized according to the worst rainfalls of the past century. You get the idea.

Throughout the nineties I realized we were getting these "100 year storms" with more frequency. After the year 2000 these storms were setting all time records and the discussion heated up about warming trends and climate change. In 2010 Laurie and I decided to build a new off grid home and I included many design features to address the more severe weather conditions we were experiencing in our part of the world. The costs were minimal compared to (after storm) damage costs and we've never regretted our decision to spend a little more money up front.
These features were over and above current International Residential Building codes used by most jurisdictions at the time. Our design features addressed Earthquakes, Wind Storms, Snow Loads on the roof, and Wildfires. In order to keep this article brief I won't go into details on any of the design upgrades but just want to highlight some of the things we did.

Engineering - We hired a structural engineer for $1,000 to help us with code plus all of the following:

Earthquakes - Our house is an ICF house so that means we have 8" concrete walls. Instead of the typical post and beam wood foundation we decided to go with a slab on grade so now we had concrete walls and floors. The Engineer added more rebar to tie the walls and slab together so that it would act as one unit in case of an earthquake. Our roof is a hip roof and he also beefed up the "ties and hold downs" for the roof structure to the top of the concrete walls. Total cost was less than $1,200.
To see my related article on our ICF experience go to ICF Construction

Wind Storms - We chose to have a metal roof for a lot of reasons. Most roofs in this area are metal. That allows the snow to slide off easier than a BUR but more importantly it is non combustible. We had a wildfire here on the property our very first year! We decided to go with a standing seam metal roof, again for multiple reasons one of which is superior wind load. As near as I can tell from my research, our roof will withstand winds over 135 to 150 MPH. The cost was substantial - over $8,000 but keep in mind our roof covers not only the house but a huge attached garage, attached woodshed, attached carport and covered porch. The end result is a roof that is over twice the size of the house itself.

Snow Loads - We average over 60" a year in annual snowfall. No big deal typically but we decided to address two additional things - A. Unexpected large snowfall of several feet or more or B. Heavy snowfall and then rain. Rain makes snow really heavy and if it is stuck good enough to the roof you can get into trouble. The Engineer simply required stronger trusses which equates to more materials at the truss company but labor doesn't really change. Cost was about $2,500. I also chose to use exterior plywood (no OSB on my house) with a thicker core than code required. Cost for materials was about $600.

Wildfires - We cleared the land around us of trees and I keep the surrounding grass mowed. Our roof is non combustible metal and our siding is Hardi Plank which is not completely non combustible but it is fire resistant. Under the siding our ICF form is 3 hour fire treated foam next to the concrete walls. The only added expense for fire resistance is the metal we used on the underside of the soffit and carport and covered porch ceilings. Most residential fires caused by     wildfires occur when embers are sucked into the attic vent holes (bird blocking) and eventually set the roof structure on fire from inside. The total added cost to cover the exposed underside of the carport and covered porch and soffits was $2,100. For a full description on fire prevention measures we used click on this link - Wildfires

It's been pretty well established that building for the extremes in your area have been successful. In Florida they've added stricter measures for hurricanes that have proven to work. In our area storm detention systems are being upsized to hold more water. All along the west coast earthquake standards are enforced. I did a lot of insurance reparation work as a contractor, repairing wind damage, fire damage, and water damage. I believe you will spend a lot less money preventing damage than reacting to it. I went above and beyond "code" because I haven't seen any decrease in severe weather patterns. New "severe weather event" records are being set every year. You can't stop everything Mother Nature may throw at you but you can sure minimize it in most situations. Where you draw the line is up to you, just know there are preventative measures everyone can take to minimize severe weather storm damage.

Ed and Laurie Essex live in the Okanogan Highlands of Eastern Washington State where they operate their two websites - Good Ideas For Life and Off Grid Works.

 

We have a lot of off grid design features in our house. One of those is solar tubes. Since they seem to generate so much interest with visitors I thought I would share what I know about them after using six of them for three years.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableSomeone mentioned solar tubes to me a few years ago. I had “sort of” heard about them but never really looked in to what they were. Solar tubes are a cylindrical version of a skylight. They have a plastic dome on top which sits on the roof of your home. The dome top is attached to a round polished tube which extends through your attic and ends at your ceiling. At the ceiling end you will find a diffuser or round lens which diffuses the light. Put a different way, light starts at the exposed dome above the roof and travels through the polished cylinder and ends at the diffuser. I have borrowed a picture from Google (shown to the right) to illustrate.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableTo start my research I called a salesman in a local glass company and asked about them. He thought they were a great product but he told me they worked so well that in one home they had to remove the solar tubes they had installed because they let too much light in. Apparently the owners were unhappy because the tubes let too much light in from vehicle headlights at night and they couldn’t sleep.

Let me put that and your main question to rest right here. Solar tubes work and work well and no, I’m pretty sure they won’t let so much light in at night that you won’t be able to sleep. I have no idea where he came up with that story but I did mention he was a salesman right?

We have six of them. We have one room that doesn’t have a window. It is a small bathroom. Without the solar tube you would have to turn a light on every single time you used the room. With the solar tube we don’t have to turn a light on any more than in any other room with a window. You only need a light at night. That’s how much light they let in. We also put one right over the stove in the kitchen, one right at the appliances in the laundry room, one over the desk I am writing my blog from and one each in Eds “hobby” room and Laurie’s “crafts” room.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableFor the most part, each of these areas can be used any day, rain or shine, without turning the lights on. They are in fact a miniature skylight but with a difference. Skylights are notoriously prone to leaking. These solar tubes are installed just like a common roof vent. They take up very little space and put out much more light than their size because light is amplified in the polished tube and then spread out via the end diffuser. The tubes can also be insulated.

We live in snow country. The solar tubes are always the first roof objects to appear after a fresh snow. There is enough heat loss in them to melt the snow but that being said I don’t believe we lose very much heat from them.

Over all I am glad we had them installed. In our opinion they are a must have for any home but especially an off grid home. I would guess they cut our daytime light fixture usage by about 90%. Thanks to the solar tubes we don’t have any dark corners or hallways or rooms we can’t use without turning on the lights. We confidently recommend them to anyone.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

 
 
 
 
 

Unless you live in desert country, water is a pretty big factor in building decisions and techniques. I’m not talking about the water you drink, but rather the water that is sure to rain or snow on your house and property.

Roofs – One of the most important features of your home is the quality of roof. Shake, shingle, and metal are the most common types of roofs. There are a few BUR (built up roofs) using some kind of rubber type material or even asphalt mop down roofing, most commonly used on flat roofs.

As a commercial builder we put flat roofs on half of the buildings we built so I know it can be done successfully. That being said, I still don’t recommend them for houses, especially if you get a fair amount of snow in your area.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableSo you’ve researched the type roof you want to put on and it sheds water really well.  Now what? Most of the houses around here don’t have gutters. WRONG. It doesn’t matter how much snow you get, gutters can be put on to last in the snow country. This is our second year with gutters in snow country. I’ve had as much as 3’ of snow on my roof at any given time. Most of the time it slides off the metal roof. There is zero damage to my gutters so far. It can be done. We placed the gutters a little lower than usual so the ice goes over the top of them. We also used more fasteners than normal. My fasteners are 12” on center. As a side benefit, if you have flower beds next to your house, you won’t have tons of water running off your roof and flooding your planters and destroying flowers.

What’s the big deal you ask? Water, that’s what. One of the most important features of any home is to make sure you get any and all water away from the house. Water kills houses. Water is responsible for mold, mildew, rot, and flooding. Get the water away from the house.

Sooner or later that snow is going to melt and having all of it just pile up next to your foundation and walls isn’t the best situation. It also isn’t good for the rain to fall off your roof and splash water and dirt on your siding all year long. Gutters do double duty at our house. They help catch rain and snow melt and channel that water into a cistern. Every drop we catch is one less drop we have to pump from our well. We use the cistern water for the gardens and to water the horses.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAnother common mistake some people make is to eliminate footing drains. Especially if the subsoil is clay. Most clays don’t absorb water so the ground water will go to the path of least resistance and that may be under your concrete floor or crawlspace. The other mistake made with footing drains is that some people put the drains on top of the footings. They need to go BESIDE the footings in order to work properly. Footing drains are made of perforated pipe. Water goes in the holes in the top of the pipe and back out the bottom holes. If the pipe is laid alongside the concrete footings it will eventually go into the ground away from your house and not into it. Also DO NOT use the footing drains as drain lines for your downspout drains. You need to have two sets of pipes running around your house. One set of perforated for the footing drains and the other is non perforated for your downspouts.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThe last thing you can do to prevent water damage is to make sure the ground (surface) slopes away from your house. This past year we experienced some settlement along the back concrete garage wall. When the snow melted really fast it ponded in the new low settled area next to the wall and came into the garage through a crack in the concrete wall. The ground was frozen and all that snow melt had nowhere to go. It will always seek out the lowest point so you need to make sure that point is not toward your house but away from it. I just placed more soil in the low areas and even after a major rain storm I had no more leakage because all of the surface water now runs away from the house once again. And yes, my concrete wall is sealed on the outside from all ground water but in this case it ponded higher than all of our sealed wall surface and it got behind the vapor barrier and ran down the wall into a crack. Not anymore. Problem solved.

Water can be dealt with properly as long as you pay attention to these basic principles. Your home will look nicer, last longer, and be healthier if you do.

As I sit here writing, we’ve had another late snow storm. It’s melting fast, and my cisterns will be full again before I am finished writing this article.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

 
 

Our off grid home has many design features you don’t normally find in most houses. Many people come here to see what some of these features look like or how they operate.

This is the second installment of features. Part 1 was published last week. See Part 1

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableoff grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableInsulated cold frames – on the south side of the house we put in raised bed insulated cold frames. We have grown fresh cold weather type vegetables as cold as 18F with nothing to heat them but the sun. They are attached to the side of the house which never freezes.

Plug in switches – we have more wall switches than most homes. The extra switches turn our phantom power off when an appliance isn’t being used. Phantom power consists of things like the stereo and microwave clocks or anything else that shows lit up on a screen even though the appliance is turned off.

HRV – we have a whole house fan for fresh air that is configured to warm up the incoming cold air with the outgoing heated air. The result is semi heated fresh air which becomes pretty important in the winter months when we have to keep our house warm.

Tankless hot water heater – our hot water heater has a little generator in the supply line that lights the propane pilot light when the water is turned on.

Outdoor sink – we have a commercial food prep sink outside we can use during the months that aren’t freezing. It is great for cleaning the garden veggies, and cleaning fish and the chickens at butcher time. This sink helps keep all the mess outside. In the winter month we just drain the lines.

Outside generator/ pump switch - We added another switch and plug-in for pumping water from the carport. If I don’t want to use my solar power to run the 220V deep well pump I can hook my little portable generator to an outside plug in and flip the bypass switch and pump water from the carport. This comes in handy during the cloudy months. This won’t be such a big deal when we get our new pump which only uses 1/3 of the amperage to run as our existing pump but I will still have the option.

Cell phone system – there is no cell coverage here but we have managed to acquire a signal via a system of cell phone amplifiers and antennas.

Insulated curtains – Laurie made all new curtains for the house that are insulated to an R value of 5. That doesn’t seem like much until you close them during the cold months. You can feel the difference immediately. I believe they save us about two cords of wood each year.Sun Frost refrigerator – these refers are expensive but well worth the money if you are off grid. They don’t run near as often as a traditional refer. The reason is that they are well insulated and the compressor is located at the top of the refer instead of the bottom like all other conventional refers. Compressors put out heat. When they are located at the bottom of the appliance they warm it up which causes it to run in order to cool it back down. This is a ridiculously simple concept.

Energy Star appliances – the Energy Star label is almost worthless. Look at the electrical use in terms of watts or amperage to compare appliances when choosing which ones to buy. Even then it is tricky. Our dishwasher, vacuum, and chest freezer are the biggest electrical hogs.

Garage Temperature – we even have an unintended design feature in the garage. One side is underground 6’ and the other side is a heated wall from the house. The result is that it never freezes and is the perfect temperature for food storage I the winter. It’s just like a root cellar!

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

 
 
 
 

Our off grid home has many design features you don’t normally find in most houses. Many people come here to see what some of these features look like or how they operate. Since I seem to struggle with my memory more and more I thought it would be nice to list them out along with a little explanation of them. Most of them are explained in detail on prior Blogs.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableRoof overhangs – our eave length is calculated to keep the sun out of the windows in the summer which helps with natural cooling, and let the sun in during the colder winter months which helps with passive heating. Anyone can do the calculation. It is most important for the south side of the house.
 
off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableICF’S – the exterior walls are made out of Styrofoam concrete forms filled with concrete. The concrete is 8” thick. I personally recommend that if you go this route you need to use the icf’s that have more insulation on the outside form than on the inside, especially in colder climates.
 
Earthquake proof – because we chose to have a concrete slab and concrete walls it was relatively inexpensive to add enough rebar to make it possible to withstand a pretty good size earthquake. We’ve already had a 5+ on the Richter scale.
 
Fireproof – our exterior walls are layered with Hardiplank siding, then 2” of 3 hour fire treated icf, then 8” concrete and then 2” more 3 hour treated icf. Our roof is metal. Our soffits are also metal with tiny slots for venting. We also put metal ceilings on the exposed wood framing in the carport and front porch roofs. This makes our house virtually immune to forest fires. We got tested the very first year we moved in. We had zero repercussions.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableSolar tubes – these allow natural light where you wouldn’t normally have any. They greatly reduce the need for electrical lighting.

Water cisterns – we have three of them. They capture water off the roof of the house and barn and store it. We use the stored water for our garden (low pressure gravity flow) and to water the horses. We have been able to do both of those tasks for 11 months of the year without using our solar power to run the well pump for either of those tasks.

We have a three sided attached wood shed and a carport with two open sides and a garage with a large door. We put regular wall footings in the ground along the open sides of those two structures and at the garage door opening. In the future, if we want to, we can install a framed insulated wall in those openings and double the size of our house.

Masonry heater – our custom masonry heater only burns about five cords of wood each year to heat our home and we live at an elevation of 4200’. The winter temperatures get down below zero. It is extremely efficient at over 95%.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableoff grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWood burning kitchen stove – we also have a custom built masonry kitchen stove with a 42” cook top that burns wood. We also use it to heat the house in the spring and fall when it is only mildly cold. When the stove isn’t already going we just use the regular propane stove to cook with and use the 42” cast iron top as counter space.

Solar power – we produce all of our own electricity with a photovoltaic solar power system with batteries and inverter. We also have a backup generator that runs about 100 hours per year when it clouds up for a period of time.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

 
 
 

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableOur family owned commercial construction company had a boneyard. We often worked in the refineries and every one of them had a boneyard. I’ve worked at other construction companies and each one of them had a boneyard. Here at our little homestead we also have a boneyard.

Whenever you do a home project you have to purchase materials. You always order as close to the perfect amount as you can but invariably there is a little bit left over. Maybe you only needed ½ a sheet of plywood but had to order a full sheet. What do you do with the left over sheet? You put it in your boneyard. Next time you need a small piece of plywood you don’t have to go to the store, you go to your boneyard.

I wasn’t always a big fan of the boneyard. In our construction business we did a lot of jobs every year and some of our people had a tendency to collect a lot of left over material. When a job was done you had to pay someone to sort through the left over materials – some to go back for a partial refund, some went to the dump, and the rest came back to our boneyard. We had to pay for the sorting and hauling and stacking in our yard. Then later we would have to pay someone to go out there and sort through a pile of lumber to get exactly what they needed and then stack it all back up again because what you needed was always on the bottom of the pile.

Some places like a refinery can afford to order all kinds of miscellaneous pipe and fittings and store them in their boneyard for future small projects and/or emergency repairs. Most of us don’t have that luxury to spend that kind of money and just have it sit there.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe didn’t have a boneyard while living in a condo. It just wouldn’t have been practical in a community like that. Well we have one now. We have an area set aside down by the barn with metal scraps and plastics, mostly left over fencing pieces.

We have another area where we store leftover dimensional lumber from the construction of our home.

In yet another covered area we have a stack of plywood pieces. We also have left over finished wood products in our attic storage room from the cabinet and wood trim installation.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableLaurie has her own boneyard. She loves to sew and over the years has accumulated A LOT of material. It is stored in plastic stackable containers. She almost never has to go to the fabric store. She uses the left over material for all kinds of small projects and quilts.

I built a finished kindling storage rack for our wood burning kitchen stove out of left over matching cabinet pieces; the desk and shelves we use for our business and computer; the shelf and coat storage rack in our “mud room”; complete storage racks in our storage room; shelving in our garage; chicken nest boxes and roosting racks, and numerous other small projects in both the house and barn, all without going to the local department store.

We cut the steel stake end off of a broken plastic temporary fence post and use it for staking rows in the garden. We’ve saved and reused both plastic and metal fence wire for splices when needed. Broken tools and handles get recycled one way or another. We have a huge stash of 5 gallon plastic buckets in our boneyard left over from the construction of our home. Mostly paint buckets. You can never have enough 5 gallon buckets. We have plastic pipe of all kinds left over as well. We have been using it for all kinds of things from repairs to temporary piping.

It is 23 miles one way to get to the nearest hardware store from here. The cost is currently $11.00 just for fuel to make that trip. By having a boneyard we have probably saved over 30 trips to the store the past few years. Not only did we save on fuel but we also saved on the materials! Now if I could just figure out how to get paid to sort through the pile………………

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com and Off Grid Works.

 
 
 
 

This blog is about one of the challenges you will face when you start your new home or addition. It’s also about one of the biggest mistakes made by seasoned builders as well as “do it yourselfers”. It has to do with your foundation and what you are going to put it on.

We’ve all heard the old cliches about cornerstones and foundations being the most important key to a successful build. I won’t re-hash those here. We all know it to be true.

One of the most common mistakes made in foundation work is to putting the foundation on unacceptable ground or fill.

I was asked once to build a concrete foundation for a house on crappy fill dirt. The property was sloped. The contractor had cut into the slope and then used that cut fill to level a building spot. Cut and fill to balance a site is okay, we did some of that here, but not if the fill is non compactable or unacceptable to carry a load without future settling. I refused to do the job because eventually that foundation was going to fail. One half of it was on good sub grade but the other half was going to be on poor load carrying topsoil. Where the two type soils meet there was going to be a break in the concrete foundation and settlement of one half of the house.

I have been hired to repair this exact type of damage. One half of the house settles and the other half stays where it should. First we had to jack the sagging half of the house back up to level. Then we had to go under the sagging foundation and dig down until we hit good soil and put new foundation piers in to hold it up. It was very expensive and entirely avoidable.

In our case on our homestead, we were somewhat horrified to find that our topsoil was 4’ deep in the location we wanted to build. Most of our acreage has topsoil that averages 14” deep. It cost us more excavation money to move the topsoil off the building site but it had to be done. We had to get down to the native clay/gravel mixture you find here that is suitable to build on. We had to completely change our plans for grades around our home but again, it had to be done. It cost more than I had budgeted but not near as much as it would have if we had ignored the problem. We ended up with a completely different “look” of the grades around our house but it’s what we had to do.

I would guess most of these decisions are about money. Sometimes it just costs more up front to do it right but I can guarantee you it will be less expensive in the long run. It always costs more to come back and do a job in a “finished” environment. In the above example of the home repair, we didn’t have access for equipment due to property lines and existing landscaping etc. Everything had to be done by hand and it took several weeks. The homeowners had to access their house through mud and over ditches. It was no fun for them; let alone what they had to pay for it.

I was talking to my neighbor this past weekend and he was sharing a story about his pole barn he built at his last residence. He had the excavator on site three times longer than he had anticipated because they ran into poor soils. He had to bring in 15 truckloads (150 cubic yards @ $15.00) of good fill to build on after the garbage dirt (also 159 cubic yards) had been hauled away. He did exactly what he was supposed to do.

You can build the best foundation in the world but if it isn’t sitting on good soil it will fail. Click on this Illustration (PDF) to see a picture of a proper cut and fill job. This plan was drawn by a civil engineer for our home which was built on a slope. Notice the tiered “cuts” that were made to accommodate the approved fill. You never want to put good fill on a slope.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com and Off Grid Works.

Featured

  • Our Home Design Features Part 1

    Our off grid home has many design features you don’t normally find in most houses. Many people come here to see what some of these features look like or how they operate. Since I seem to struggle with my memory more and more I thought it would be nice to list them out along with a little explanation of them. Most of them are explained in detail on prior Blogs. Roof overhangs – our eave length is calculated to keep the sun out of the windows in the summer which helps with natural cooling, and let the sun in during Read More
  • Our Home Design Features Part 2

    Our off grid home has many design features you don’t normally find in most houses. Many people come here to see what some of these features look like or how they operate. This is the second installment of features. Part 1 was published last week. See Part 1 Insulated cold frames – on the south side of the house we put in raised bed insulated cold frames. We have grown fresh cold weather type vegetables as cold as 18F with nothing to heat them but the sun. They are attached to the side of the house which never freezes. Plug Read More
  • I Built My House for Extreme Weather

    I went to work in the family commercial construction company in the early 1980's and by the end of the decade had worked my way into the office as a project manager. Commercial construction is entirely different than residential construction. For one thing, everything is engineered - structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers all take a part in the design of commercial buildings. It wasn't long before I discovered the term "100 year storm". Many structural designs and mechanical designs were based on the 100 year storm (I'm over simplifying for the purpose of this article). Things like concrete foundation design and Read More
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